Putting Education Reform To The Test

Education Budget “Turkeys” Include College Buildings, Charter School Database

Margie Menzel/News Service of Florida

Robert Weissert (left) and Kurt Wenner of Florida TaxWatch reveal the group's annual budget turkey list.

UPDATE: We’ve added Senate President Don Gaetz’ response at the end.

Florida TaxWatch has released its annual list of “turkeys” found in the proposed state budget.

TaxWatch bills itself as an “independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research institute and government watchdog.” The group targets 107 items for veto, including some education-related projects.

Gov. Rick Scott has until May 24 to make a decision on the legislative spending plan for the budget year beginning July 1. Scott has a line-item veto, which means he can strike down individual budget items.

Just because a project is labeled as a “turkey,” doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile expenditure.

“What we’re looking for is that they followed the established budget processes, that the things that were funded were subject to public scrutiny,” said TaxWatch’s Robert Weissert. “That’s not a judgement of the value of the project.”

In other words, these turkeys didn’t go through the normal debate process among lawmakers or the public may not have had a chance to review them.

Here is a sampling of this year’s TaxWatch education turkeys:

  • $14 million for Gulf Coast State College to construct a STEM building
  • $6 million for Old Jackson County (Marianna) High School
  • $9 million for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to construct lab space
  • $1.6 million for Juvenile Justice education programs
  • $110,000 for the Literacy Jump Start pilot project
  • $300,000 to an outside entity to study accessibility and credit for online courses
  • $400,000 for a statewide database for charter school waiting lists

Gov. Scott is being asked to take a closer look at projects on the turkey list when he picks up his veto pen.

The report notes that money not spent on turkeys can be used for other things, such as:

Back-to-school sales tax holiday weekends – The state could add three more sales tax-free weekends for school-related purchases.

• Early learning enrollment — Add 46,821 children to early education programs.

• More teachers – Hire 3,000 new teachers at the minimum salary of $34,856.

TaxWatch is also calling on the Legislature to create a systematic review and competitive selection process for supplemental education programs for reading, math, arts, culinary training and more.

“This line-item in the budget is consistently a place where numerous member projects show up, often growing even larger in conference,” the report states. “This was especially true this year when 44 of these programs–worth $23 million–were funded.

“Several of those programs have been funded before and many more programs were added, with no accountability for performance.”

TaxWatch recommends that the governor and the Florida Department of Education review projects which only appeared in the House or Senate budget on a case-by-case basis.

The group wants assurance that the projects are needed and are serving the taxpayers. Those that don’t pass muster, it says, should lose their funding.

Senate President Don Gaetz issued a response to TaxWatch, which can only be characterized as an instant classic. Here it is in it’s entirety:

“The TaxWatch list is built on the unconstitutional perversion that if an appropriation isn’t recommended by unelected agency officials it shouldn’t be considered in conference by elected legislators.  This is an arrogance of the elite who spend too much time in Tallahassee and Washington listening to the echoes of their own invented wisdom and thinking they’re hearing the voice of God.

“No agency put in its budget a $3,500 raise for Florida’s most effective teachers, yet that was funded.  No agency testified before the Legislature asking for a raise for state employees who had been without one for six years, yet we passed it.  No bureaucrat in the Department of Education asked for a career-technical pathway to a high school diploma or an online pathway to a university degree, but we funded them.  Not a whisper of criticism from TaxWatch on any of these and a hundred other similar items.  So, apparently, their indignation is not only ill-informed but selective.

“TaxWatch has dismissed as ‘turkeys’ mobile medical and dental units to bring health care to poor people in rural areas, documentation and education about the Holocaust, housing for disabled veterans, rehabilitation for severely wounded soldiers who want to return to duty, and replacement of 50 year old educational facilities that produce workforce for companies bringing jobs to Florida.  In most cases, those who put together this list couldn’t find these projects on a map and haven’t put five minutes into finding out anything about them.

“If our founders had shared the slavish devotion of TaxWatch to unchallenged decisions and dictates of faraway bureaucrats, we’d all be drinking English tea and singing God Save the Queen.  A good song.  But not an American song.  The Constitution obligates and empowers elected legislators, who come from communities and go home to communities, to write the state’s budget.  If TaxWatch staffers want to test their budget theories in the public square, let them stand up in front of conference committees and testify in public.  More than thirty public, open conference committee meetings were held during the recent legislative session.  Every item in the state budget was proposed and adopted during those public meetings.  Testimony was requested and welcomed at every meeting.  Not once did any person from TaxWatch ask one question, offer one idea or say one word.

“It is little wonder that TaxWatch is irrelevant 364 days a year.”


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